Review: The Penelopiad
We’re having some issues with our cable at home, which means that we’ve lost not only our television but our internet access. Not entirely sure when that’s all going to get resolved, but it’s kind of lovely (in a slightly inconvenient sort of way). I think I’ll stop missing the television very quickly – we got through the series finale (curse you, execs!) of Studio 60, so I’m content. The nice thing is that this means I can READ like there’s nothing better to do – which, as it turns out, there isn’t.
Last night I read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, a book that continues to disturb me because I can’t decide how to pronounce its title. This relatively slender paperback tells the story of the Odyssey through the eyes of Penelope, Odysseus’s legendarily faithful wife.
Atwood is a fantastically clever woman, and I love the way she delves into the cobwebby corners of society and our civilization’s relationship with its women. Forget having a beer with the President – I’d like to have a glass of wine with Atwood. Her Handmaid’s Tale is still one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. In this re-imagining of a well-known myth, Atwood brings her keen sense of speculation and mastery of myth and between-the-line reading to play, drawing on a wide variety of resources to flesh out a little-known character. By the end of the story, you are at least half-convinced that there’s an entirely different myth overlaid on the Odysseus story – one that paints Penelope, her maids, her suitors, and her husband in an entirely different historical and allegorical light. It was definitely an engaging read.
That being said… I was disappointed. This book seemed like one of those cases where a terrific author has an amazing idea, and is in such a hurry to get it down and share it that they don’t exactly finish it. Penelope, as the book’s primary narrator, tells us the story – but it’s like a hostess telling a story about herself to acquaintances, whereas I would have liked to have heard the story as if I were a close friend. We never get to really dig in. Penelope walks us right up to intriguing parts of her story – for, for instance, the moment when her infant son is placed in mortal danger to prove her husband’s feigned insanity – but skims away, never letting us in any closer to her. There isn’t really a feeling of deliberate coyness; it’s more as if we’ve got a half-fleshed-out outline of The Penelopiad, to which Atwood planned to add more layers but which got sent out to the publisher before she was ready.
Tantalizing shards of theory and conspiracy are scattered throughout the latter half of the book, most intriguingly one regarding matriarchy and patriarchy that I won’t elaborate upon, as I’d hate to spoil it for you should you read the book (which you should). The Penelopiad is a smart book, if somewhat shallow (in the sense that it fails to dig deeply), and its subject matter and author make it the sort of book any English major could read in the Student Union without trepidation. It’s also a light read, and a very funny one, suitable for beaches and subways.
Note: Don’t be turned off by the injections of poetry meant to replicate the “Greek chorus.” They’re fun to read (try them out loud!) and add an interesting third perspective to the story.